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How Local Veterans Are Confronting PTSD Years After Combat

Veteran Daryle Walker says PTSD can change as people get older.

Daryle Ray Walker pulls up into the driveway on his black Harley Davidson motorcycle. After living in Texas for years, he recently moved back to Ohio where he was born.

“My mom developed breast cancer,” Walker explains. “She had a double mastectomy and, just had to come back out here to be with her.”

A first sergeant in the U.S. Army, Walker completed two combat tours in Afghanistan and later guarded prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay. After more than 20 years of service, he retired in 2014 as an Airborne Military Policeman.

Now 42 years old, he works as a veterans service officer, helping fellow vets access medical services and other benefits. He says of the veterans diagnosed with PTSD, one out of five will experience it in a severe way.

“Severe to the point where you have hallucination, you talk to imaginary figures,” Walker says. “You do things to console yourself, your mind, your body.”

Since Vietnam, research into PTSD has revealed the trauma relived by veterans after they've experienced war. Sometimes, though, those symptoms don’t arrive until much later in life – and cause a new set of problems.

Walker, who wrote a book on coping with PTSD, says he prefers living in rural areas. In the city, he's exposed to triggers – the smell of diesel fuel or the sound of a helicopter – that instantly transport him back to life in combat.

“It's a sense of panic, it's a sense of awareness,” Walker says. “I hear a helicopter, now what, what's getting ready to happen next?”

Walker works with veterans from as far back as World War II, and says he sees how PTSD can change as veterans get older, especially once they retire.

“That darkness and those demons, they sit on your shoulders and they embrace it because there's nothing else to keep your mind off of it,” he says.

New research is working to explain this phenomenon. At The Ohio State University, Kenneth Yeager directs a program focusing on physiological care for those who've undergone severe stress and trauma.

Yeager says they've begun to see a population of older veterans, many in their late 50s, experience what's called “late onset PTSD.”

“Well, you know, some people have PTSD immediately following active combat in the war,” Yeager says. “There are others that come back and have PTSD symptoms that are triggered by other life events.”

Late onset PTSD could be triggered by events like the death of a family member or the birth of a child. Or it's triggered by the simple fact of getting older.

“Part of the reason, I think, people are very busy raising families and having jobs and getting involved in life, and it's not until the family, the kids are out of the home they have a little more time, they have a little more leisure,” Yeager says. “People quit working and the structure goes away.”

Walker says as the years pass, coping with PTSD doesn’t get easier. Talking with other veterans helps, he says, because they're the only ones who understand what it's like.

“Even now, we may think that we're getting better, but every time we think we're getting better we take another step back, because it's something that triggers our mind, that triggers our memory,” Walker says.

Walker says he's tired of hearing about how PTSD is bad, how it leaves veterans damaged or broken. To help vets, Walker says, people have to understand them.

“PTSD, it's an issue, just like anger from a divorce, just like a rape victim has to deal with issues for the rest of their life,” Walker says. “It's not bad to be a victim. We just want to be understood so that we can become a productive member of society.”

Watch The Vietnam War online, and tune into Columbus Neighborhoods on WOSU TV at 8:30 p.m. for more local stories of veterans.